The Elephant Whisperer, Lawrence Anthony

A few weeks ago, I somehow stumbled across an article about a herd of elephants who traveled to the home of a man in Africa who had recently passed away to pay their respects. As a Reiki practitioner, I am fascinated by the fringes of our knowledge; the behavior of the elephants of the article seeming to defy explanation, or at least giving us a glimmer into something by its very unusualness. Promptly, I borrowed and gobbled down The Elephant Whisperer, a book written by the man honored by the elephants: Lawrence Anthony.

To someone who has lived only in the suburbs and cities of the U.S., Anthony’s life in the wilds of Africa reads like an adventure tale. While never without some sort of firearm for protection, it’s a lifestyle where if a deadly Mozambican spitting cobra decides to pay you a visit,  it is gently carried  out of your house with a broom. A magical place where that which is the most dangerous can also be the most gentle and wisdom is imparted in the most unlikely ways.

A respected bushman of Zululand, conservationalist and owner of the game reserve Thula Thula, Anthony came to elephants rather by accident. Or fate. Asked on short notice to take in a “troublesome” herd of wild elephants that would otherwise be shot, he rallied his reserve to take them in and relied on his decades of intuition honed by the wilds of South Africa to acclimate them to their new home.

Now a game reserve is no zoo — it is a vast, but mostly protected space, requiring constant vigilance against poachers, but otherwise one stays out of nature’s way. But Anthony faces a unique case with his new herd from the start — traumatized by the shooting of their matriarch and her infant daughter during the transport to Thula Thula, the herd lives up to it’s rogue reputation, breaking out of both an electrified temporary enclosure and the live-wired reserve itself; leading themselves to certain death as local villagers take up arms to protect themselves and property. With a bit of good luck and good will, the hulking giants are returned to a re-fortified Thula Thula and Anthony realizes unconventional methods are in order to save these magnificent creatures.

Going against his own expert opinion of not acclimating animals to humans, he quickly realizes the only way to calm the herd and have hope that they will stay safely within the reserves borders while not becoming a permanent threat to his rangers, is to forge a truce between the new matriarch and himself in order to regain her, and in turn the herd’s, trust in humans. With trepidation and boldness, and always a deep respect of the unpredictability of nature, Anthony learns to connect with the elephants and in doing so provides us a new window into the world.

He soon discovers in his interactions with them that the elephants can influence the emotional tone of the atmosphere, making him feel as if he is an old friend, or other times when he has come just a bit too close. He marvels when they gather to welcome him home from trips away, their timing uncannily accurate even when unexpected flight delays occur. And discovers an innate ability to communicate with these ten-foot, five-ton creatures:

“I had at last grasped that the essence of communicating with any animal, from a pet dog to a wild elephant, is not so much the reach as the acknowledgement. It’s the acknowledgement that does it. In the animal kingdom communication is a two-way flow, just as it is everywhere else. If you are not signalling to them that their communication has arrived with you then there can be no communication. It’s as simple as that.

Eye movements are perhaps the most important. A flick of the eye, a look ,or the tiniest glance may seem like nothing to humans, but in the animal world it’s a very big deal indeed. Attitude, facial expressions (believe me elephants can smile beautifully) and body language can also be signficant …. Communication is not the preserve of humans; it is the one thing that is truly universal”

Over time, he also learns to become sensitive to the elephants form of communication with each other, and likely the natural world at large:

“…elephants transmit infrasound vibrations through unique stomach rumblings that can be received over vast distances. These ultra-low frequencies, which cannot be detected by the human ear, oscillate at similar wavelengths to those transmitted by whales; vibrations that some believe quaver across the globe. But even if those wavelengths only vibrate for hundreds of square miles, which is now generally accepted in the scientific community, it still means elephants are potentially in contact with each other across the African continent. One herd speaks with a neighbouring herd, which in turn connects with another until you have conduits covering their entire habitat, just as you or I would have a long-distance telephone call.”

For those of us so far removed from nature in our cars on cement streets, looking out from our metal and glass high rises, or lost in our digital worlds, Lawrence Anthony, in sharing his story, reminds us of our interconnection with our planet at our most fundamental level. While he passed away in March this year, he has left a real-life thrilling adventure tale right up there with those we see at the movies.

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